March 28, 2017 – Enemies of Humility: Partisanship

“… That no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.”

1 Corinthians 4:6

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Genuine humility among Christians will leave no room for arrogant partisanship.

The Corinthian church was a notorious illustration of the sin of partisanship among believers. Its partisanship—some members claimed allegiance to Paul, some to Apollos, and some to Cephas (Peter)—was essentially caused by pride. Paul, as author of 1 Corinthians, vigorously opposed such pride of divisions, as Apollos and Peter would have.

The Corinthian believers did have reason to be thankful to God for sending them such quality leaders. And it was right for those in Corinth to respect and honor their spiritual elders. Scripture says, “Appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction” (1 Thess. 5:12). However, the Corinthians went far beyond God’s Word and exalted the leaders for the prideful sake of themselves, the followers, thus creating partisan sects.

Such partisan spirit, even on behalf of godly leaders, always leads to hostility toward other faithful servants of God. And the motivation behind all this is pride, which is essentially having an inflated (arrogant) view of yourself, one that says “I’m for me.” When pride rules the operations of any church, humility is forgotten, and fellowship and harmony are inevitably torn apart.

You can help prevent or counteract partisanship simply by considering that all the daily benefits you take for granted—food, housing, clothing, job, family—are yours because of God’s kind providence. And if you’re a Christian, you have eternal life, God’s Word, spiritual gifts, and many other blessings that are all of grace. The apostle James reminds us, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

So again we see that God gives us every reason to be humble and leaves no place for pride and partisanship. If you have a good pastor and good elders or deacons, humbly thank God for them. You and your leaders are all stewards of God, entrusted for a short while to serve Him with His resources.

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Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that the Lord would help you be a positive influence for humility and harmony, rather than for pride and partisanship.

For Further Study: Read Acts 14:8–18. How did the people of Lystra react to Paul and Barnabas? ✧ How difficult was it for Paul and Barnabas to correct the people’s errors?[1]


The Corinthians’ Conceit

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. (4:6–8)

The Corinthians were proud and boastful. The cause of their factionalism—with some claiming Paul, some Apollos, and some Cephas (1:12; 3:4, 22)—basically was pride. They were proud of their human wisdom and proud of their human leaders. It was that worldly, carnal pride that caused the serious divisions that plagued the church. Those leaders themselves were godly and humble servants of the Lord, and the Corinthians had much reason to be grateful for His having sent them such men. But instead of being grateful they were proud.

Throughout most of the letter thus far Paul had been teaching them not to exalt human wisdom and human leaders. Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes. These things refers to the figures of farmers (3:6–9), builders (3:10–15), and servant–stewards (4:1–5), which refer to those who minister for the Lord. Paul tells his Corinthian brethren that he has applied these figures of speech and analogies to himself and Apollos. His reason is to begin to teach them not to exalt themselves, either: that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant. Paul (myself) and Apollos had been given as illustrations of what true ministers should be: humble servants and stewards (4:1). Servants are faithful and meek, not proud; stewards are trustworthy and submissive, not arrogant. Neither is any Christian to be.

God’s faithful servants are to receive proper honor and respect. We are to “appreciate those who diligently labor among [us], and have charge over [us] in the Lord and give [us] instruction” (1 Thess. 5:12), and faithful elders should “be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). But they are to be honored only within such bounds of Scripture. godly respect turns into ungodly exaltation when we exceed what is written. When loving gratitude and legitimate loyalty are contaminated with pride and conceit, Christ’s church is fractured and weakened. What God intends as a means of unity Satan turns into a means of division.

The Corinthians had gone far beyond scriptural respect for ministers and had developed factions that were virtually sects. As is often the case, the leaders were exalted for the followers’ own sakes, not for the leaders’ sakes. The leaders were not a party to their glorification but were simply used as a focal point for the Corinthians’ own pride. In fact, the humble example of their leaders was rejected; thus Paul had to remind them of his own humility and that of Apollos. The factions gave the Corinthians a means to become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.

When the Israelites were being delivered from Egypt, Moses was clearly the leader. Moses had stood before Pharaoh and demanded the release of his people. Through Moses the Lord had performed the great miracles that finally convinced Pharaoh to let them go. Moses was the undisputed head of his people. After the Lord sent a special anointing of his Spirit on seventy of the elders, two of them, Eldad and Medad, continued to prophesy in the camp after the others had stopped. When Moses was told what they were doing, his young assistant, Joshua, was annoyed and said, “ ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ ” (Num. 11:28–29). Joshua’s loyalty to Moses was misplaced. Misplaced loyalty, even to faithful men of God, inevitably brings hostility to others of God’s servants. It causes envy, competition, and division.

Moses did not exalt himself and would not let others exalt him. That was the attitude of Paul and Apollos. “If we, as God’s apostles and ministers, refuse to exalt ourselves or be exalted by you or anyone else,” Paul was telling the Corinthians, “what reason do you have to exalt yourselves?” (An interesting comparison to this text can be made from Acts 14:8–18.)

The reason was arrogance. Arrogant (phusioō) literally means to “puff up (KJV), inflate, blow up.” The term was used metaphorically to indicate pride, which is having an inflated view of oneself. Paul uses that word four times to describe the Corinthian believers (see also 4:18, 19; 5:2) and three other times to warn them against pride (18:1; 13:4; 2 Cor. 12:20). The meaning of pride basically is “I’m for me.” When everyone is pulling first of all for himself, fellowship and harmony are torn apart in the process.

A closely related sin is boasting. Pride must brag, but that is no more excusable than being arrogant. Why do you boast? Paul asked. Actually he asked the question in three parts. First, For who regards you as superior? “Why,” he says, “do you think you are above other believers in the church? Why do you think your group is better than any other? You are made of the same stuff they are and have been redeemed by the same Lord. You are no better. You have nothing to boast of.”

Second he asks, And what do you have that you did not receive? What does anyone have that, in one way or another, was not given to him? We did not give ourselves life, the food and care and protection we had as babies, an education, talents, the country we were born in, the opportunity to earn a living, the iq we have, or anything else. No matter how hard we may have studied in school and worked at our business or profession, we would have nothing except for what the Lord and many others, by His providential hand, have given us.

Christians have been given even more. We have salvation, eternal life, God’s presence within us, His Word, His spiritual gifts, His love, and countless other blessings for which we have done nothing and can do nothing. All those are gifts of God’s grace. We have absolutely no good thing that we did not receive (cf. James 1:17; 1 Chron. 29:11–16). What does any person have to boast about?

If we have a good pastor, God gave him to us. If we have good parents, God gave them to us. If we live in a good country, God gave it to us. If we have a good mind or creative talent God gave it to us. We have no reason to boast either in people or possessions. Not only ministers, but all Christians, are but God’s stewards. Everything we have is on loan from the Lord, entrusted to us for a while to use in serving Him.

The third question follows logically. But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? In other words, if they possessed only what someone else had given them, why were they boasting as if they had created the things themselves, or earned them? The whole foundation of their boasting was nothing more than a fabrication of their pride. Nothing is more self–deceitful than pride. We are inclined to believe almost anything about ourselves if it is favorable.[2]


6 Paul now comes to the crux of the issue. He has been writing this to the Corinthians so that they will apply this message to their own attitudes toward himself and Apollos. He follows up this statement with two purpose clauses, both introduced by the Greek word hina (the first one translated in the NIV with “so that” and the second with “then”).

The phrase the NIV translates “so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written’ ” is one of the most difficult phrases in this letter to interpret. What seems certain is that the neuter singular article (to) functions here as a quotation mark to introduce a quote. The quotation itself is probably some sort of proverb or maxim. But note that it does contain the negative particle , which is a normal marker for a nonindicative verbal form. It is probably for this reason that the NIV translates the phrase as an imperative, “Do not go beyond what is written.”

But what does “what is written” mean? This verbal form is the perfect passive indicative of graphō, a form that Paul frequently uses to introduce OT quotations. (This same form is found, e.g., in 1:19, 31; 2:9; 3:19.) How might the apostle be using it here? I suggest that what lies behind this phrase is the preaching of the apostle. We know from Acts 17:3 that Paul’s typical preaching included two elements: demonstrating from the OT what God had prophesied would happen to the Messiah, and then proving from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that he was the promised Messiah. We can almost hear him saying over and over as he disputed with the Jews, “Let’s not let our Jewish traditions determine our understanding of the Scriptures. Don’t go beyond what is written!” He must have used that “maxim” repeatedly.

How does this apply here? Insofar as Paul constantly drew the attention of his audience to the Scriptures, and since he has been using several Scriptures in his discussion of the problem of divisions in the church (in sequence, Isa 29:14; Jer 9:24; Isa 64:4; 40:13; Job 5:13; Ps 94:11), he is calling on his readers here to reflect on all of these Scriptures. If they do nothing more than keep these texts in mind, they will not choose favorites—Paul, Apollos, Peter, and so forth.

This leads us into the meaning of the second hina clause (lit.): “so that no one of you may become arrogant in one person over against another.” Since Paul has just referred earlier in this verse to himself and Apollos, he undoubtedly has these two in mind here. And he is addressing both elements in the church: those who are manifesting pride in him over against Apollos, and those who are manifesting pride in Apollos over against him. Neither party receives his blessing! As far as Paul himself is concerned, all pride is wrong. The verb he uses here for “take pride” (physioō, GK 5881) is a favorite in this letter (see 4:18–19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4; cf. 2 Co 2:17, the only other occurrence in the NT). Each time he uses this verb it expresses an attitude that he condemns. His goal for this church is that they stop all arrogance.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 106–108). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 291–292). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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